Local Spins’ annual Labor Day column targeting hurdles still faced by the state’s working musicians in 2022 focuses on sobering results of a new Michigan Music Alliance survey.
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On Labor Day 2022, the picture has come into sharp focus: Many musicians and bands – especially those aiming to make music a career – continue to struggle to make ends meet and move forward financially.
A 2022 survey of the state’s music community by the Michigan Music Alliance revealed that the top three challenges or obstacles facing musicians relate to their financial security:
1) finding balance between the artistic side and business, 2) income, and 3) finding gigs.
One frustrated musician put it this way:
“Unionize the scene, create paid opportunities for Michigan musicians,” the survey respondent suggested. “I think the No. 1 thing holding all of us back is lack of fair pay for the work we do. Increase ticket prices for local shows.”
Among other things, those responding to the spring survey targeting the most pressing concerns of musicians cited issues such as “lack of venues with a focus on live music” and “finding gigs with solid pay and promotion.”
Of course, in the wake of a devastating pandemic that shuttered many venues – some of them permanently – the scene has changed and become more complicated.
While some new venues and music festivals have popped up across the state, others still haven’t returned to regular concerts and live performances, citing staff shortages and other issues.
Because of employee turnover and changes in band scheduling procedures (some venues no longer have on-staff booking personnel and have turned over those duties to employees working in the kitchen, bar or elsewhere), some musicians complain they no longer know who to contact at certain venues or don’t get the same response from places they used to play.
Inflation pressures add to the financial pinch, both for performing musicians and for fans who face higher ticket prices for many shows. On the flip side, there’s continued resistance by many to pay even nominal cover charges for local music.
Let’s put this in dramatic terms which explain why many working musicians who aren’t established national touring artists feel frustrated and continue to struggle:
To keep up with inflation, a musician paid just $100 for a full evening’s performance at a bar or club in 1980 should be paid $359 for that same gig in 2022.
As you’ll see in the comments below, that’s a rarity. It makes one survey respondent’s suggestion of “increasing the public’s appreciation” of the local music scene a major understatement.
It’s a serpentine, thorny thicket with lots of moving pieces, but one that some venues, promoters, musicians and organizations have slowly worked to address in the post-pandemic area.
The Michigan Music Alliance, which hosts B-Side Sessions workshops aimed at giving the state’s musicians the tools they need to create successful businesses out of their careers, also plans a new Grand Rapids event next spring aimed at further elevating the scene. Stay tuned for an announcement in the near future.
BALANCING LIMITED FINANCIAL RESOURCES & LIMITED PERFORMANCE OPPORTUNITIES
Clearly much work still needs to be done.
For this year’s Labor Day look at the state of Michigan musicians, we’ve assembled new observations from regional acts as well as some pointed comments by musicians from past Local Spins columns. As always, it’s an illuminating exercise.
Dan Kesterke (Flowers on the Grave, Jackson County Rock Band) – The biggest obstacle, currently, is balancing the high demand of financial resources with time to write, record and plan shows. Living wage? Definitely not at the level we are performing. There are bands who are super big in Michigan that are sometimes $100,000 a year in the red, and they are constantly touring. Pay has not necessarily increased due to inflation because local venues are strapped for workers and time slots available to perform. Many venues, tours and festivals have switched to a pay-to-play system, or have an extremely strict head-counting system to determine a fight over a $200 split for 3-4 bands over the course of an evening. A perfect scenario would be $100 per person in the band, $100 for travel expenses, and $100 to put towards the business. With 3-4 bands on a bill, that can get costly very quickly. I think club/bar/venue owners put a lot of pressure on the bands to bring fans, instead of curating a culture of great live music where their regulars are the bulk of the guaranteed audience. As the local industry crawls out of COVID, we are all squeezing pennies with the hope of a band bringing in a killer audience and sometimes that still isn’t the case depending on what is happening locally that night. Guaranteeing a show payout, no matter the head count, is risky for the venue, but it will guarantee quality musicians who want to play the venue, and their patrons deserve a great show, too. We do have a couple great venues that are trying to be a place for musicians to feel good and put on great shows, but it takes time to build a consistent clientele. There are a large cadre of acoustic venues to give background music for the drinkers for a four-hour time slot, and that’s cool. There are only a couple designed for a rock show. We do appreciate everyone we have worked with and who are supporting a live music scene. We want to give back as well and are working to bring in local media, radio and online advertising so each show is an event, not just a gig. Building relationships, we have found, is really the key to everything, and I think having gatekeepers who nurture and help groups through the process helps a lot, too. We believe in success for everyone, not zero sum.
Jake Allen (Northern Michigan Guitarist and Singer-Songwriter) – Wages for musicians are so dynamic from gig to gig. Some gigs pay great. Others you might do for different reasons, whether it be for exposure, networking, charity or some sort of artistic return. It does seem like most club gigs have not adjusted their artist rates for inflation. My dad was offered the same rate playing bars in the 1980s as they are typically offering now. Part of the issue is that there are so many musicians willing to play for next to nothing that it can hinder the living of people playing music full time. I think there should be minimums of what musicians are allowed to play for at clubs. … Being a professional musician takes a copious amount of self-drive. Keeping that consistent can sometimes be difficult. I think regardless of what musical path you take, it is important to have a lot of irons in the fire. For example, I jump between being a solo artist, producer, engineer, sideman and now musical theater actor. Wearing so many hats can get stressful at times but it can also be very rewarding. As a professional musician you have to learn many more skillsets than just knowing your instrument. … A solid manager or having good self-management skills will always make things easier as a professional musician. It’s often like the Wild West out there for people in this line of work. I think stronger implementation of musicians’ unions would be very positive thing for all of us. Although music is a form of alchemy and therapy, it is also a business. Balancing those aspects properly will make for an easier and more fulfilling ride.
Mary Rademacher Reed (Grand Rapids Singer) – What would make my life better? Better pay. Less hours. Just like anyone else. Other musicians not undercutting or owners hiring them, just because they are cheaper. Years of experience doesn’t seem to count. There seems like there should be a minimum pay for musicians (in bars, I’m talking) like $125 a person minimum for say, three hours. There’s a big misperception that it’s all just “fun.” Story of our lives, right? Decades of lessons, practice, training, buying equipment, traveling, hauling equipment, learning how to be prepared, knowing how to read a crowd, negotiate the business aspect, hustle, wardrobe expenses, try to convince a client or club that we’re worth more. I’m still getting paid the same for a bar gig as I did 40 years ago – 40 YEARS AGO! What other career or business faces that? Corporate and private events, of course, are much different. But you still have to have the connection and know how and what to offer, which questions to ask. It’s a constant job of selling yourself; your self-worth. … People always figure they can get the music for cheap and there are always musicians who will. Who negotiates with the caterer? The lawyer? The venue price? They show them the rates and what you get for that.
Wuzee (West Michigan Hip-Hop Artist) – It would make my life better if people would continue to buy my music and continue to support the vision. Let artists know you value their art. Constantly elevating and creating new opportunities is all I can do.
Diego Morales (Stone Soul Rhythm Band, Founder of American Player Records) – The support of the crowd is what’s missing. People just don’t buy music anymore, that’s why the major acts still tour extensively. Without live performance, it’s difficult to earn. People are also less inclined to spend 99 cents on a download these days. … When venues hire ‘hobbyists’ it’s hard for pros to make an impact. We are all playing the same venues. That’s not to say they shouldn’t get a chance to play, but why not have those bands play Tuesday through Thursday? Make live music a real thing again, a treasure.
Brian Adams – I used to make $100 solo in 1988. Then doing solo in 2010 was still $100. These were all 4 hours.
John Wenger – It was $100 in 1980, too — 38 years later, still $100. Thank karaoke.
Kyle Brown (Kyle Brown & The Human Condition) – After averaging out rehearsal time, performance time, travel time, and set up/tear down time. I’d say each member averages about $10/hr. That’s why I do solo gigs though, they’re much more lucrative, but generally less fun than full-band shows.
Amber Buist (Out of the Box Management) – The bar for talent is pretty high and the market is demanding. Standards go both ways. You won’t see a beer can in their hand while they are rehearsing or while they are playing. … I think if we are going to request higher pay we have to be taken seriously as hired professionals and the bar for hired professionals has to rise significantly or we stop whining. I think there are bands that are getting paid what they are worth and bands not getting paid what they are worth, and there are a lot of contributing factors. We can’t simplify it down to “musicians are under-appreciated.” The market has to be able to support the purchase. The demand has to be there for the product. I think if we look at it from a business standpoint, the artist and the venue have to be a partnership. In my experience that is rare. I maintain that it’s possible to make a decent living. One has to apply themselves and want to treat the profession like a professional. Continually educating themselves and running their business like a true business, and they must want to build a base of people who enjoy their music. Again, when you monetize your passion – it becomes work. Someone mentioned music for the love of music: There is a hybrid and balance of sorts for those who choose this as a career. It’s achievable but takes constant regrouping.
Gary D. Hanks-Carpenter – Not defending them, but most restaurant/bars aren’t really staffed to support/promote the live music they want. They’re really restaurants focused on food. You might not even get a Facebook mention. I’ve shook my head in disbelief when I call one of the local hangouts and ask “Who’s Playing Tonight” and they can’t answer the question. Alas, you’re at the mercy of promoting on your own and deciding what gigs are or aren’t worth taking.
John Nowak (Drummer for Desmond Jones) – We’ve gotten paid almost $1,000 for playing one three-minute song at an event, and gotten paid $0 for playing for three hours at a bar in Iowa. Every single show varies for us, especially out of state or in markets we haven’t played before. In Michigan, we do well financially at shows because of our pull. But if you’re playing in Teaneck, N.J., for the first time and you get paid based on the number of people at the door who say they’re specifically there to see you, chances are you won’t make much cash.
Brian Vander Ark (Lead Singer and Guitarist for The Verve Pipe) – I’ll weigh in here: 4 million streams of “The Freshmen” in one three-month pay period = $200.
Steven Korson (Bassist) – I used to make $125 for a four-hour night back in 1980. I’d have to make $382 dollars today to equal that pay. (Using an inflation calculator.) That is not even taking in any kind of raise for years of practice and experience. I have gotten to the point that I am willing to play for a couple hours, where I want, when I want, playing the music I want, for no pay. If they pay me I have to do what they say and accept the pittance offered for services rendered. If I get no pay, they can’t say much.
TAKING PLACE TODAY: The West Michigan Labor Fest takes place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today (Monday/Labor Day) at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids with performances by Mick Lane, Mustang Band and The Shirley Brothers with free admission to the Grand Rapids Art Museum, children’s activities, a beer tent, food vendors, local arts and crafters, labor exhibits and a car and motorcycle show. Details here.
Read previous Labor Day columns here.
Copyright 2022, Spins on Music LLC